Refugee Designer Shines a Light on Global Issues

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Refugee Designer Shines a Light on Global Issues

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In summer 2014, a German astronaut on the International Space Station posted an image to his Twitter account with the caption, “My saddest photo yet.” It showed the lights of the Gaza Strip from above; what the astronaut saw but the static shot did not capture were rockets flying over the strip amid the region’s 50-day war between Israel and Palestine.

Back on earth, at least one person was instantly captivated.

“I was immediately like, download, print,” said Céline Semaan, a Lebanese designer and the founder of Slow Factory, a Brooklyn fashion company that began in 2012 with the goal of creating and selling products that raise awareness around issues such as the plight of refugees or the threat of global warming. Eventually, Ms. Semaan printed the image onto silk scarves for a collection called “Cities by Night.”

The current political climate has provided ample fodder for her creative challenges.

This spring, Ms. Semaan, who arrived in Canada with her parents in the late 1980s as a refugee herself, will add scarves with images of cities in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — the seven countries President Trump named in his original immigration ban in January — to the series. They follow a more earthly item: a simple, elegant brass necklace with a key charm dipped in white gold, made by Armenian artisans in Lebanon, symbolizing the homes that refugees leave behind.

With the keys and the accompanying look book, featuring refugees, children of refugees and activists from various creative fields, Ms. Semaan is seeking to highlight both the struggles and the triumphs of the approximately 65 million people scattered around the world whose treatment has recently been a contested topic in the United States and abroad.

“I’m a success story,” Ms. Semaan said. “I made it in America. There are a lot of people like us who are not represented in the media.”

As with all of Slow Factory’s products, a portion of the proceeds from the necklace sales have been earmarked for a charity. In this case, 10 percent will go to job-training programs run by American Near East Refugee Aid, or Anera, which provides humanitarian aid to Palestinians and poor families in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.

WATCH: Our reporter visits Slow Factory in Brooklyn.

Anera has collaborated with Slow Factory since Ms. Semaan originally created the Gaza by Night scarves in 2014. “We raised enough money to build a school in Gaza,” she said. She added that Anera also used the funds to supply women in Gaza with so-called dignity kits, containing scarves, underwear, soap and feminine hygiene products. Other projects focusing on the environment, on outer space and on women in science have followed.

Ms. Semaan, a user experience designer, creative director and 2016 M.I.T. Media Lab Director’s Fellow, approaches manufacturing with the mind-set of an engineer, sourcing materials from groups like Thread International, which produces fabric from recycled plastic bottles gathered by workers in Haiti and Honduras; using zero-waste printers; and creating a collection out of T-shirts from secondhand stores.

“I do a lot of research,” she said. “Designing for people is inevitably designing for our planet. When we use materials that harm our planet, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.”

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Ms. Semaan considers the key a universal symbol. “I saw a lot of Palestinian grandmas wearing the keys on their necks in Lebanon,” she said. “When I came to the United States, and I discovered Tiffany, I was like, ‘Oh, people wear keys around their necks here, too.’ Even DJ Khaled has a key in his Snapchat.”

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a correspondent for Al Jazeera Plus featured in the key collection look book, was attracted to the project despite having little interest in the fashion world.

Mr. Shihab-Eldin explained that though he had visited refugee camps in Lebanon as a reporter, he had felt limited in his ability to help those whose stories he has told. “This makes me feel connected to them,” he said.

Hala Abdul Malak, who teaches at Parsons School of Design and also modeled for Slow Factory, said she saw items like the keys as a way to prompt conversations about cultural dissemination and appropriation. “Everybody expresses themselves one way or the other through what they’re wearing,” she said. “It’s easy to bridge boundaries through clothes and fashion.”

And though it is also easy to dismiss the adaptation of such issues into commercial products, an insistence on context is part of Ms. Semaan’s mission. “Céline knows what it’s like to be a refugee,” said Maggie Forster Schmitz, vice president for philanthropy at Anera. “She’s genuine in her interest in helping refugees and marginalized communities in the Middle East.”

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